GAINESVILLE, Florida – For Jóhanna Birna Bjartmarsdóttir, being an EduGator means doing your best to improve the lives of others. Having faced her own share of challenges, Jóhanna sees this identity as a lifelong commitment to leave the world a better place.
“It’s not just something that you are for four years,” she said.
The UF education science sophomore, who is from Iceland, had to overcome a “compounding force of adversity” to get to where she is today, including unfathomable childhood trauma as well as having ADHD, autism and dyslexia. Now, she is using her own experiences and strength to advocate for those who cannot fight for themselves.
“If I don’t stand up to others, I’m just like someone else who didn’t stand up for me,” she said.
After being hospitalized and in a wheelchair for over two years, she said she is proudest of her ability to walk. She feels a responsibility to help others gain access to the resources they need to live happy lives. Her desire is motivated by the lasting impact of the coping strategies she was taught from Icelandic support programs for children who have been sexually assaulted.
These tools and strategies gave her an early advantage, she said, and it helped her get better. Jóhanna believes and hopes these challenges are the hardest things she will face in life.
“Everything else is just a bonus,” she said. “It’s like a second chance, so I’m just trying to do the best that I can with that to help others.”
Specifically, Jóhanna aspires to create a health literacy curriculum for K-12 education, empowering students to lead healthy lives, make informed decisions and overcome adversity, according to her website.
Her mission to help children keeps her motivated over time, and she sees creating this curriculum as her calling. She believes there is a great need for it.
Her efforts are already paying off in her home country of Iceland. In January, she had the opportunity to present at the 2023 annual conference of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department at Landspítalinn, the National University Hospital of Iceland. The presentation was surreal, she said.
Nurses and doctors who treated her in the hospital and knew the severity of her condition were present at the conference, which Jóhanna described as a full circle experience.
“That’s my favorite moment — to be able to have shared that with them,” she said. “And them being able to see how far I came when nobody thought I could ever walk.”
After her presentation, Jóhanna received countless messages from people who relate to her story — whether through their own experiences or that of a partner, sibling or child.
“It’s so weird because nobody talks about these things,” she said. “But, when you talk about [it], you actually see this touches everybody, and everybody can relate.”
Jóhanna’s work has also opened up opportunities for her to conduct research and collaborate with Ásmundur Einar Daðason, who is Iceland’s minister of education and children. She had the opportunity to meet with him about improving the nation’s education system this February.
The nation is very interested in Jóhanna’s work and wants to incorporate a program like the one she hopes to develop into its education system.
“It’s such an exciting time to be able to actually put something in when it’s being built,” she said.
She is currently working on a scoping review of health literacy curricula that teaches students about CPR training, mental and physical health promotion, nutrition, coping strategies and communication. Because of her own experiences with these challenges, she feels even more qualified to take on this research.
“I hope to shed light on the fact autism or ADHD or dyslexia shouldn’t deter anybody from pursuing higher education,” she said. “Because we need those people to do research, and we need those people to bring their experience into the research.”
Jóhanna said her experience at UF has allowed her to use all her qualities to become her best self. She has excelled at the College of Education and is very grateful for the supportive community.
This summer, Jóhanna will study abroad in London and Paris, as well as participate in a medical internship in Guatemala.
“I feel like the pieces are falling together, and it’s so rewarding because I’ve worked so hard,” she said.
Above all, Jóhanna hopes people begin changing their outlook on labels like autism, dyslexia and ADHD. It is not an impairment, she said, but rather simply difference.
“I’m not here despite those things,” she said. “I’m here because of them.”